‘The Lion King’ – Does This 3D Conversion Process Make Me Look Flat?

I still remember the day when I had first learned that Walt Disney Studios had been planning a theatrical release for a new 3D conversion of Beauty and the Beast, one of my absolute most favorite films to date — I was literally even sharing the news with virtual strangers on the streets of New York. Unfortunately it first got postponed (reportedly due to not being ready for its release date) and then removed from the slate completely until it was announced early this year that it would be available on 3D Blu-ray. Despite this, the film has had limited releases abroad such as in New Zealand and Australia, where it appeared to be well received and reviewed.

That said, having seen the first four minutes of The Lion King 3D as attached to Cars 2 3D in select theaters, I began to understand why many are reporting being underwhelmed at the end result. And while my personal opinion on the matter teeters on both sides (enough so, that I’m not willing to commit until I see the entire film in 3D, which I will in August at the Disney D23 Expo), I thought it worth looking into the whys of it all.

But before I go any further, a disclaimer: I am not qualified to make a definitive explanation on any level outside of being someone who’s seen a portion of the film and acquiring a very basic understanding of the process as it’s been occurring over the past few years. In other words, I am lower than a layman on this totem pole, so I gladly welcome any constructive input on the matter).

Transforming a traditional live-action (or stop motion as is the case with Nightmare Before Christmas) isn’t revolutionary anymore, and in some cases is even preferred, as Tim Burton decided to do with Alice in Wonderland, but traditional animation is a bit different, especially in the case of Walt Disney Studios where, believe it or not, the conversion for The Lion King was already done back in 1994, before the film was even released.

Before we can look at the technique used with Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King (among with a few others), however, we must look at how traditional hand-drawn animation is done. I’m sure most of you are already aware of this, but it bears repeating for the sake of where I’m going. In traditional animation, images are drawn on sheets of celluloid, more commonly known as cells. These cells, in turn, comprise of many layers which, when laid on top of each other, compose a single frame of the animation. The benefit with the cells is that instead of having to draw the same background over and over, as one would have to do if it was all on one sheet, the background can be used consistently as characters and other objects can be manipulated on sheets above it. This is why if you ever look a sales of animation cells, they’re almost always just bits and pieces from the animated film they come from (unless the background is replicated, for aesthetic purposes).

Walt Disney himself even took advantage of this traditional method when he and Ub Iwerks created the multi-plane camera for The Old Mill and subsequent films. Placing each layer of cells on different planes so that their distance from each other can be manipulated, instead of literally being flat, produced an effect of depth of field and allowed for a unique visual element.

Moving forward to 1991 (although technically it was earlier for that, used on other projects), what Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King did that set them apart from most of the other animated films is that the different cell layers were imported separately into Disney’s CAPS (Computer Animation Production System). This means that each layer could effectively be manipulated in a third dimension, very much like what the multi-plane camera did, paving the way to move into three-dimensional space.

So basically when you are watching The Lion King 3D, it becomes apparent that what you’re really watching is no different than what you’d get if you physically took each of the cells and held them in front of you, manipulating the space between the foreground and background with your hands.

This is, of course, only one of the many components, that when combined, give the lack of a three-dimensional effect, despite clearly being able perceive depth between the layers. Other contributing factors appear to be that the images are too sharp and colors are too solid – there’s no shading or lighting that one sees in the real world (even if it’s not readily perceived) and have come to expect in computer-generated animated films (and in live action, of course, is unavoidable). The other major factor that I can determine is that there doesn’t seem to be any use of depth of field and the effects it has on focus. Normally an object in the foreground doesn’t have the same depth of field as the background – one would be sharp while the other blurry, but in this case, everything appears to be in focus, which is contradictory to the purpose.

So when it comes right down to it, the end effect appears to be nothing more than paper cut outs placed apart from each other. The 3D is perceived, but it’s not what moviegoers have come to expect, so it can easily be construed as disappointing if one doesn’t quite know what to expect.

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